Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Own up, Arsene

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v Arsenal - Britannia Stadium

Believe it or not, I was actually considerably cheerier at half-time than at full-time. When the whistle went for the break with the score 3-0 to Stoke, I was actually able to laugh at our risible performance. By full-time, any sadomasochistic smiles had faded.

Perhaps it’s because there’s something purgative about an unadulterated thumping. There’s no need for caveats or contemplation. You can just let loose and get it out of your system. In a funny sort of way, our incomplete comeback robbed me of that catharsis.

It also means you have to sit through tired platitudes from the manager about the team’s “great spirit” and admirable “mental response”.  What tosh. Real mental strength is about focusing for the full 90 minutes, not mounting a response once the game is already lost.

I wonder if Arsene ever considers stepping in front of the press and saying:

“Fair enough, guys: this is one’s on me. I didn’t buy enough defenders and I didn’t organise the ones we do have sufficiently. It’s not good enough and, given that we have the January window ahead of us, I can assure you that we’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

While it would cost his ego, it might make win some favour among an increasingly disaffected fanbase.

Most managers don’t admit guilt in press conferences because they’re afraid of giving their board an excuse to dismiss them. Wenger has no such worries, so it wouldn’t hurt him to take responsibility sometimes — I actually think it could even help to relieve the pressure. There’s a fine line between single-mindedness and myopia, and from his public comments it’s not always clear which side Wenger sits on. At least owning up would prevent people from saying he can’t see the problems.

And let’s be honest, the reason we lost is clear as day. Arsenal’s defending – and defenders — simply weren’t up to the task.

From the minute the team-sheets came in, Arsenal’s inexperienced back five looked like trouble. Within a minute of kick-off, those panicky predictions proved correct. This was actually one of the worst defensive displays I can remember seeing from an Arsenal side. People will compare it to last season’s drubbings, but at least those tended to be against decent teams. This weekend, we made an average side look good: Arsenal applied lipstick to the pig that is Stoke City.

In truth, Wenger didn’t have much choice about his selection. Ludicrously, those were the only defenders available. Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny might have been on the bench, but one suspects they were merely making up the numbers.

One area where Wenger retained a degree of flexibility was in the deployment of those defenders he still had at his disposal. I don’t know why he insists on playing Calum Chambers on the right-hand side of the centre-backs, thus displacing Mertesacker to the left. Mertesacker spent the entire match seemingly unaware of his surroundings, but perhaps that’s no surprise when he is playing in an unfamiliar zone. Every angle must be adapted, every body position altered.

Maybe Wenger feels Chambers is more comfortable on the right of centre, but he has not played enough games at centre-back to be settled in either role. The reality is that, after the Spaniard’s recent run in the team, Chambers has probably played less games as a centre-half than Nacho Monreal. His inexperience makes him adaptable.

Lining Chambers and Mertesacker up like this has caused problems before: the pair were in chaos in the same arrangement at Goodison Park. Repeating that error is foolish. Keep the reliable defender where he’s happy, and let him guide the novice through the game.

There’s also the question of preparation. Wenger must have known there was a good chance we’d be tasked with facing Peter Crouch. Had we made any special plans to deal with his aerial threat? Not by the looks of it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the referee, and with a degree of justification: Chambers didn’t deserve to have his dismal day capped by a red card. However, the officiating impacted on both teams. The decision to disallow Stoke’s fourth goal, for example, was clearly incorrect.

Our momentum has ground to a hurtful halt. If your glass is half full, you’ll be point out that many of our rivals for the Champions League places are also slipping up. If it’s half empty, you might argue that fact is disguising quite how bad a season we are having.

Chelsea’s defeat ought to be cause for some joy, but our own performance made that delicious delight short-lived. On the weekend the Invincibles’ immortality was assured, our modern mediocrity was painfully underlined.

Arsenal 1-0 Southampton – Olivier Giroud: The man for some occasions


Alexis Sanchez might have been the match-winner, but Arsenal undoubtedly owe a debt of gratitude to Olivier Giroud for this vital win over Southampton.

Giroud’s contribution has sparked the butterfly effect of opinion, evolving swiftly from the initial and innocent musing as to why he didn’t start in to the bellowing demand that he play every game from now until May.

It’s not as simple as that. This performance doesn’t prove that Giroud is the answer to our striking situation, just as Danny Welbeck’s match-winning display at West Brom didn’t see him crowned as our de facto centre-forward.

As the pattern of this game developed, it became clear we needed Giroud. That’s something difficult to anticipate: had Arsenal scored early on, we might have shifted in to a counter-attacking strategy in which the pace of Welbeck, Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been more useful.

As it was, we needed someone who could help us lay siege to the Southampton goal and provide a focal point for our crossing game. Giroud did that and more. Although Alexis Sanchez will rightfully grab headlines for another priceless goal, the game really swung on Giroud’s arrival and the exit through injury of Toby Alderweireld.

Giroud is unique among Arsenal’s forwards. His aerial presence and hold-up play are superb, but there’s one quality that really makes him stand out: his vision. His physique gives him the platform to receive the ball with his back to goal, but it’s his brain that allows him to be so effective with it. The deft flicks and neat touches don’t only show a player of considerable technique — they show a player with of creativity and imagination. Southampton couldn’t handle him.

However, it won’t always be thus. There will be times when Giroud starts and has to be withdrawn for the speed and movement of Danny Welbeck. Presumably we’ll then go through an inverted version of the same discourse, with people anointing Welbeck as the solution and casting Giroud aside.

Instead, Arsenal fans should simply be grateful for the variety they now have in their attack. Neither Giroud nor Welbeck are of real world class. However, between them they have the requisite attributes to beat most defences we’ll encounter. Crucially, they’re supplemented by Alexis Sanchez: a Swiss army-knife of a player who seems able to adapt to any opposition.

Based on the evidence of the last two seasons, we already know that Giroud is not the man for every occasion. However, as he proved this evening, he is undoubtedly the man for some.

WBA 0-1 Arsenal: Is Arsene Wenger trialling a formation to suit Theo Walcott?

Arsenal celebrate after Danny Welbeck's goal at West Brom

I was intrigued by Arsenal’s starting XI at West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was afforded a rest, so Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both started on either side of Olivier Giroud. It was a proper front three, with the two wider forwards frequently rotating and drifting in to the centre to join the Frenchman.

Welbeck performed extremely well in what’s a familiar role to him. He created the most goalscoring opportunities of any Arsenal player, completed the most sprints, and racked up the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half. More importantly, he got the winning goal with an excellent header to end his brief barren run.

However, his long-term place in the team is far from guaranteed. Debate has recently focused on the duel between Welbeck and Giroud. Watching him at West Brom, I wondered if his real competition might yet come from Theo Walcott.

The fluid front three system Wenger trialled at the Hawthorns seems ideally suited to Walcott’s attributes. He could switch wings with Alexis Sanchez, roving infield to play off Giroud when appropriate. He doesn’t offer as much defensive cover as Welbeck, but is historically more productive in the penalty area. Welbeck will have to improve his goalscoring ratio if he is to see off Walcott on his return to fitness. My hunch is that, as last season, Wenger sees Giroud as a crucial cog in his first-choice XI.

Having Giroud and Laurent Koscielny available certainly makes the squad feel a lot stronger at both ends of the pitch. It might be a strange time to say it after Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal both picked up knocks at the Hawthorns, but I’m almost wondering if strengthening the midfield might become a bigger priority than adding to the defence come January.

With Debuchy getting closer to a comeback, we do at least have Chambers and Monreal who can offer a measure of cover at centre-half. At present, Mathieu Flamini is the only fit holding midfielder. Impressive though he was at West Brom, his erratic form this season suggests he’s not the reliable alternative to Mikel Arteta we require.

Our next opponents are a lesson in the importance of that ‘DM’ role. With Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring their midfield, they’ve had the best defensive record in the Premier League this season. It was telling that all three goals Manchester City scored against them this weekend came after his withdrawal with injury. Let’s hope it keeps him out for Wednesday too.